Stuff that Happens
STUFF THAT HAPPENS IN THE PLAY
- In the court of Malfi, Italy, Antonio (the widowed Duchess’s steward) speaks to his friend Delio as they observe others: Bosola has recently been freed after seven years in prison for killing at the command of the Duchess’s elder brother, the Cardinal, but the Cardinal will not acknowledge his debt. Ferdinand, the Duchess’s twin brother, and the Cardinal urge the Duchess to accept Bosola as a servant (the brothers have hired Bosola to spy on the Duchess) and warn her not to marry. She secretly marries Antonio.
- Months later, after hiding her marriage and a pregnancy, the Duchess eats apricots from the suspicious Bosola, vomits, and eventually goes into labor; Antonio invents a story of stolen jewels to keep the household in their rooms during the secret childbirth. Bosola finds a paper that reveals the Duchess has had a son.
- In Rome, the Cardinal meets in his chamber with Julia, his mistress. Delio arrives and propositions Julia, but she refuses him. In another part of the Cardinal’s palace, Ferdinand has received a letter from Bosola, telling him of the baby’s birth. The Cardinal and Ferdinand discuss their sister’s betrayal, and Ferdinand’s rage takes him to the brink of insanity.
- Several years pass.
- The Duchess has given birth to two more children, but her marriage is still a secret, and Bosola still has not discovered the identity of the father. Ferdinand arrives at the Duchess’s palace to confront her. To play an affectionate joke on her, Antonio and Cariola (her gentlewoman) step out of the room while the Duchess is talking to herself in the mirror, and Ferdinand comes into the room at the same moment. He accuses her of shaming the family with her promiscuity, and, although she tells him that she is married, he vows never to look at her again.
- Afraid of Ferdinand’s anger, the Duchess exiles Antonio to safety by pretending that he has stolen money and been banished. The couple plans to reunite in Ancona when she will pretend to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby. In her grief, the Duchess confides in Bosola, telling him everything. Bosola plans to entrap the Duchess and Antonio. He goes to Rome to tell what he knows and find his reward, and the Duchess’s brothers respond with expected fury. The Cardinal decides to contact the authorities at Ancona and have the Duchess and her family banished.
- At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, the Duchess and Antonio review their situation. Bosola brings a letter from Ferdinand calling for Antonio’s death, and Antonio and the Duchess say goodbye again. They know that this will be their final parting. Antonio takes their oldest son and flees to Milan. The Duchess is arrested by Bosola, in disguise, and taken by guards to her palace.
- Horrors, executions, madness, confessions, and many deaths ensue.
Notes from the Executive Director
our eyes (and ears) dazzle
John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is the great tragedy of the English Renaissance not written by Shakespeare. The play has all the ingredients that lend the works of this period their quality of encompassing our worlds: an unblinking look at evil, both a micro and a macroscopic view of the world, great language, and completely human characters – or in the case of this play, at least one completely human character.
In terms of good and evil, the play gives us the Duchess (the moral); her brothers, the Cardinal and the Duke (the immoral); and Bosola (the amoral). Bosola’s cynical view of the world opens the play and he act salmost as the play’s chorus, finally but catastrophically opting for good. The evil of the Cardinal and the Duke, is a fetid mix of power, religion, murder, and incestuous lust, cruel and inexplicable – like Shakespeare, Webster doesn’t try to explain evil. The goodness of the Duchess is uncloistered; it is a goodness mixed with human desires, with convenience, and even with vanity.
Webster shows us the small domestic moments of life. Conversation in the play goes effortlessly from the idle to the essential. and when the characters in the play speak of the largest ideas, they do so in the simplest terms. When the Duchess curses the stars for the tragedy that has overwhelmed her, Bosola responds to her assumption that the universe cares about the innocent with four one-syllable words: “The stars shine still.” And later, when Bosola, acting on the orders of the Duke, has tried to drive the Duchess insane, she defies him with an heroic echo of his taunt, “I am the Duchess of Malfi still.”
Webster’s language throughout the play is calisthenic without being ornate. His characters speak in a straightforward ways, but, in the spirit of the language explosion in early modern England, they stretch their language to reach for thoughts before unsaid – the basest and the highest thoughts.
Finally, our sense of this play’s Renaissance greatness stems from its title character. The Duchess is one of those creations of the early modern stage – Cleopatra, the Countess Rosillion, Rosalind, Beatrice – that not only admits women into the world of human greatness but celebrates that in them that surpasses manly understanding. This celebration of female strength may be one of Elizabeth I’s richest legacies to the Jacobean stage…and to ours.
Ralph alan cohen